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If yer not Dutch, yer not much

7 Aug

I grew up in a town that was half Dutch, half not – I was on the half nots. I can say Housinga, Vandermyde, and Reimer properly… because they were my classmates. This rather strange situation led me to a love/hate relationship with all things Dutch. This also created an ethnic solidarity to a past their ancestors wanted to forget.

Between 1880 and 1920, there was a wave of Dutch immigration to Northwest Illinois (and Michigan and probably Minnesota). This took the nearby Catholic town of Fulton, Illinois and turned it completely Dutch. They spoke Dutch, they went to Dutch Reformed churches, their kids mostly hung around other Dutch kids. The story my grandma (born 1937) would tell me is that the Dutch kids wouldn’t be allowed to drink and dance, but they DID seemed to get pregnant a lot.

Now a lot of this is slander, because she also told some degrading stories about Catholics too, but it certainly changed the political and social landscape of these small farming communities. This created a new identity among the new citizens. The picture with the windmill is on the Mississippi River. The people of Fulton bought the “de Immigrant” windmill from the Netherlands and moved it brick by brick to Illinois. There are Dutch Days every summer (well, not this summer) with folks wearing wooden shoes and washing the streets.

The funny thing is that their grandparents and great-grandparents were doing everything in their power to blend in… to become American. They refused to teach their kids Dutch. The strictness of the Dutch Reformed Church weakened over the decades. The last Dutch-language service in my town was in 1972. They went to the local schools, embraced being Americans, and apart from the strange-sounding names, were American by my generation in every sense. Of course, by then, there were other waves of immigrants which shifted them over to “white.”

Of course, I’m not blameless. I’ve got a kilt in my closet and my ancestors left Scotland three hundred years ago. I’ve never been to Scotland. I’ve been to the Netherlands (okay, the airport), but I have as much connection to the Hague than I do to Dumfries. My ancestors may have left thanks to being on the wrong side of a political dispute (Dissenters against the Kirk), but what they really wanted was land to farm. Along the way, we lost the “e” on our name–fought, then married Irish–and kept moving to have their kids get their own farm.

Maybe we’re all looking back to a history that doesn’t exist? Thanks to a note in my family history, I thought I was 1/256th Cherokee for decades. (Turns out, I’m not… not even close.) Are you proud of dubious connection to the past? How much is your identity tied up in your ancestry? Let me know in the comments below!

Shrug Shoulders, Smile Awkwardly

4 Aug

When I was living overseas, I figured that if I ever wrote a travel book, I would have to call it “A Land Where No One Makes Change.” Where I lived in the Indian Himalayas, everything was a cash economy. Yet strangely, no storekeeper EVER had change for your big 500 rupee bills. Were they lying? Or was there a deeper reason?

To preface this, I was working in Uttarakhand State about 15 years ago, but I just bet this is still the case. Lot of things changed while I was living in Mussoorie. First off, they changed the state name from Uttaranchal to Uttarakhand (Northern Valley to Valley of the Gods… I think), we finally got a real pizza place (Dominos is frickin’ gourmet compared to sweet tomato sauce on baked bread), and our very own cafe (Barista). I’m sure I wouldn’t recognize the Buz (bazaar) if I went back.

However, I bet few people have credit card readers, and most of the stores will have difficulty making change for a 500 rupee note. Now, for my Western readers, if you do the calculation, that’s only US $6.67. However, the purchasing power of that note in the hills is closer to $13-20! To explain, I was making $3600/year – that put me in the poverty range back home in America, but made me upper middle class in the mountains. I had two servants (a housekeeper and a laundry man) and a 43-year-old Bajaj green scooter that I called the Hulk (it was mean, green, and dangerous to ride).

Of course, I didn’t pay for my apartment or utilities, so there was some benefits. However, I saved up enough cash even on that little to pay for a round-trip plane ticket back home! THAT’S how far my US Poverty Level salary extended. So when you’re going to a storekeeper than maybe makes… oh, Rs.100-200/day and has to pay rent, food, fuel, and take care of their elderly mother singing bhajans (hymns) all day, that burns out fast. Gee, I wonder why they couldn’t make change for a note that equaled a week’s profit?!

So when I see signs in the US saying, “We can’t make change,” that’s where my mind goes. It didn’t help that the ATM machine only kicked out 500 rupee notes, so if you wanted change, you went to the “grocery stores” or you waited in “line” at the bank. NOTE: neither of those statements are accurate. “Sardarji’s” was the size of a big closet and crammed to the ceiling with packaged groceries, with fruits and veggies on top of other shelves crammed with stuff. If something didn’t sell, it stayed there… forever. That wasn’t even the name of the store: it was “Harkrishan Store” and it was run by a father and son who were both Sikhs. So since “sardar” is the (insulting) nickname for Sikhs, you soften it by giving it the honorific “-ji.” Also, no one ever lined up at the bank teller; they just moved as a mob to get to the front. Not always the case in India, but at my bank, yes.

In the US, I rarely use cash–everyone has card readers, except for the rare exceptions of the dive bar I frequent weekly–and that has more to do with the economic hit they took for being closed for three months. They couldn’t afford to pay their fees!

Have you been having trouble making change? Have you run into this problem before? Let me know in the comments below!

Challah Wallah

3 Aug

There is a simple joy in baking bread. It’s unlike any other type of baking. The ingredients are deceptively simple. The timing is known, the process is straightforward… so why on Earth can’t I ever get it right?!

Ever since I got married, I’ve been (not always) making bread. Part of our faith involves blessing the wine and bread every Friday night, and you get a lot more out of it if you make your own bread. I’m sure I’d get a lot more out of the wine if I had my own vineyard, but when I started, we couldn’t even get wine up in the Himalayas, so… count your blessings.

When I first started out, I had a lot more advantages than I do now. I could use real wheat flour and eggs and milk. I had a marble countertop (because marble is really cheap near where they quarry it) that I could whack the bread onto to make it fluffy. Then I could braid it into challah, which is this wonderful braided bread that looks and smells great. Then you put an egg glaze on it… boom! My newlywed wife used to boast about my bread to her friends. One of them called me the “challah-wallah” (wallah means “seller” in Hindi) and that name stuck.

However, once we left the mountain and moved back to the States, my bread making stopped being as easy. Try throwing a ball of dough onto a plastic countertop and you’ll shake the ever-living crap out of your kitchen. So my bread didn’t turn out as fluffy. Then we discovered my wife had a milk allergy, so we removed milk. Then we realized that wheat did not agree with me, so we had to use alternative wheats. Then egg was a problem for the boy. Then yeast is a concern for the ladies in the family.

So how do you make bread without all of the components? Or as I phrase it, “How do you make bricks without straw?”

At first, we ended up having oily pancakes. Thankfully, over the years, the world has become now full of alternatives. You can grind up flax seeds and make an egg substitute. We use sourdough starter to get some lift in the dough. We use spelt flour, and when that doesn’t work for me, we use chickpea, rice, and whatever GF flour we can find. Milk turns out not to be as important as you might think. Some weeks, our bread turns out great, others… it’s a gooey mess in the middle and you have to wait until Sunday to bake it again as toast.

Nowadays, we can’t braid the dough because it doesn’t stay together enough to create the lines to make the braids, but it turns out you can buy molds that can give the illusion of braided dough (see my picture above). Sometimes we just give up and put the dough in cupcake molds.

Why did the simple joy of baking bread become a science experiment? Am I the only one who has these problems? Tell me your bread-baking woes in the comments below!

What We Choose to Leave Behind

1 Aug

There are stories all around you; I found this one in the trash. Well, it would be trash if anyone ever bothered to throw it away. When you walk around my neighborhood, you find the funniest things on the side of the road, so I took pics of what I found along my route. But there are some that I simply don’t get.

This one is pretty straightforward – the pic above is a luggage handle. Okay, you’re dragging your luggage and all of a sudden – SNAP! – it breaks off. Darn. Now you have to push your luggage on wheels. My guess is that it’s one of our homeless folks who haul all their goods with them. The only problem is that luggage was not designed to be a trailer, so really… this is inevitable.

Hubcaps make sense – you’d think you’d hear the DING! as it falls off. But since this is right next to an industrial park, I’m guessing when you’ve got 18 wheels, you’re probably not noticing a small sound.

This is the one I don’t get – clothes. You’re hot, I get it, but… don’t you think you’re gonna need this later? Kids’ shoes I understand – my kids take off their #*$&#*$ shoes all the time and can easily forget where they put them. But adult shoes? What are you walking around on?!

This is left behind on purpose – it’s just decoration. Not a decoration I understand, but hey! It’s their place!

What have you seen on the side of the road that defied explanation? Tell me about it in the comments below!

Change Your Name, Change Your Life

31 Jul

There’s a saying among the expatriate community in Korea: “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Kim, a Lee, or a Park.” So you would think there’s a lack of last names in Asia. The real reason is far more interesting.

I happened to pass a TV that was showing the LPGA tour. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. However, it showed the leader board and it showed the name of Jeongeun Lee #6… which having never watched ladies’ golf before struck me as rather bizarre, but not that unexpected. Turns out that even those she’s is the only Jeongeun Lee in the LPGA, in the Korean league, she was the 6th one, and established her brand as #6.

Twenty years ago, my first real job out of college was at Taejon Christian International School, an international boarding school in South Korea. It was actually a very nice place and I’ve gotten the impression that it has been getting nicer since I left. At the time, they hadn’t built the new dorm and school buildings, and there was a small woods (with houses) nearby in the land between it and the Hannam University.

This is where I ran into the fundamental problem of a lack of Korean names. I believe JeongEun means “grace,” which considering the massive Christian presence, doesn’t surprise me. I’ve run into several “Graces;” the habit among most international Korean students is that their family named their kids something that could be translated into English as well as Korean and mean precisely the same thing.

I love this statue in Daejeon – outside the soccer stadium.

As mentioned above, there’s mainly three last names, so to have six women named exactly the same in a pro sports league is not that surprising. This was not always the case. You can look back through Korean history and find all manner of last names.

Why the change? Because after being occupied by the Japanese for fifty years, the newly freed Koreans in 1945 had burned the official records. There was no paper trail to prove that you were who you said you were. So people started giving themselves royal names. Kim, Park, and Lee all dated back to the families of kings of a free and independent Korea. These peasants wanted to improve their life, so they changed their name. The only problem was that EVERYONE figured this out and did it roughly at the same time.

This is not that unusual. Many of the new Zionist settlers to Israel changed their name to something more Hebrew sounding to start a new life. I knew one friend whose ancestor moved to Yorktown, Virginia and took his wife’s name to forget his past. I knew one guy in college who changed his last name to Angel because… it sounded cool. (Angel was also a popular show on TV at that moment.)

Does changing your name really make that much of a difference in your life? Have you met people who did this? Ladies, did taking your husband’s last name (or not) lead to a change in how people perceived you? Let me know in the comments below?

Making Breakfast Sexy

30 Jul

As a mortal, I sometimes weaken in the face of fast food. So a couple days ago, I went to a McDonalds to order something terrible for me, and as I waited for my food, I watched the menu screen. Apparently, corporate thinks that simply having you in the store is not enough, on the menu they have to show… what I can only describe as “food porn.”

Clever reveals, black background, slow zooms – I have to admit that it’s incredibly good video. Video… not just good pictures, slow, sensuous shots of pouring coffee. I can’t describe how… sexy it was pouring black liquid into a cup for five seconds.

Look at this shot – soft lighting, perfect focus. You know that they probably use some glossy liquid instead of syrup because it shines better. Steam probably recorded over several minutes to get the best cycling image. I know half this stuff tastes awful to me and I can’t help but have my mouth water.

Mickey D’s is by no means the only user of these techniques. Open the menu at any chain restaurant (IHOP, Denny’s) and you’ll see the same images, although usually with white backgrounds, which inspires you to be happy about your selection.

Just like the grocery store, the more expensive selections will be at the top of the menu, cheaper ones won’t have a picture and be placed lower. Next time you go cereal shopping, check out the difference between the brand name corn flakes and the generic – you want to make love to the brand name, don’t you?

It obviously works, but it’s disturbing once you notice it. What marketing have you noticed that “once it is seen, it cannot be unseen?” Tell me in the comments below!

Wacky in Wickenberg

26 Jul

Last weekend, I went on a roadtrip to Wickenberg, Arizona – for reasons that even the locals weren’t really sure why I came. Sometimes I just like to explore places, and considering this small town’s downtown was decorated just like a Wild West town, made it pretty neat… and a little creepy.

Wickenberg is about an hour northwest of the outskirts of Phoenix, still within the same county (because that’s how the southwest works). and it’s just under 8,000 people. Personally, it kinda reminded me of the town where I grew up (without the Wild West kitsch). I chose to travel there because a) I’ve never been there, b) it was referenced in an MST3K short, and c) because I knew that a chapter of the club I belong to would be open.

The decoration was one thing – the statues were another. Apparently, they decided to a “Cows on Parade” thing, but instead of cows, they put up people statues in Wild West outfits. That was pretty creepy.

Not sure if it was because they were life-size or just really good or I simply wasn’t expecting it. However, when I checked out the local chapter, the people there were incredibly friendly, great to talk to, and it made it worth the trip.

Unfortunately, the trip getting there wasn’t that exciting – it was flat, it was desert, there was precious little between Phoenix and there. However, I did take a different way back, avoiding the 10 to get home (really crowded interstate).

However, it was a really nice place to visit, and would really like to go back sometime. Have you ever traveled to a place and discovered a hidden gem? Tell me about it in the comments below!

No Shoes, No Shirt… Why?

25 Jul

Shirtless guy… what immortal hand or eye makes you think that your naked top is worth being seen by the rest of the world? Do you just not care? Do you have a level of self-confidence that we need to be in awe of? What is the raison d’etre of shirtless guy?

Don’t try to justify it with “It’s hot.” Hell no. I live in Arizona – it’s always hot. It’s gonna be 110 degrees today, you’re gonna get your ass burned. There’s not a lick of sunscreen on you. This is a conscious decision – “sun’s out, guns out, whoooooooooooooo!”

It’s not even justified. If you actually work out, got the six-pack, shaved chisel chest, all right – you want to show off your good work. I get that. It’s the dad bod man. Even that can be justified – you’re at the pool, you’re working out, you’re working in your own yard. No, no, no… this is “I’m walking in public and I want you to see me without my shirt” guy.

Privately, I’m in awe – even when I was in high school, 180 lbs soaking wet and 6 foot tall, I -still- wasn’t “show my chest” guy. Because I recognized my flab (even though laughable by today’s standards), and my shame didn’t need to be pointed out by my community.

So if it’s not an abundance of self-confidence, it must be, “I just don’t care. I don’t wanna wear a shirt today so… $&%* it!” Which again, I must ask, “Why does fresh air on your skin matter so much?” My guess is that you’d walk naked if you could get away with it. I’d go to sleep naked if I didn’t have kids, but I do, so I don’t. A lack of shame is understandable, if lamentable, for shame prevents us from doing many things that are undesirable. One might say that shame creates society–the desire NOT to be looked down upon–but something happened to you not to care about that.

Maybe I’m going down the wrong mental highway for this guy. What’s your theory? Put it down in the comments below!

Most Disputes Die and No One Shoots

24 Jul

My son got obsessed with the musical Hamilton about two… three months ago, which means I heard half the soundtrack before I even heard one minute of the actual Broadway cast. When I actually heard it, and later saw it on Disney+, I found it very interesting what he chose NOT to sing.

What was my son’s favorite song list?

  • Alexander Hamilton
  • My Shot
  • The Schuyler Sisters
  • Right Hand Man
  • Ten Duel Commandments
  • History Has Its Eyes on You
  • Yorktown
  • The Room Where It Happens

What was my favorite songs from Hamilton?

  • Right Hand Man
  • Satisfied
  • Ten Duel Commandments
  • Yorktown
  • Dear Theodosia
  • Cabinet Battle #1
  • It’s Quiet Uptown
  • Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

What I noticed was that my son chose songs that are mostly from the first half of the musical. This is when Hamilton is up and coming, young, willing to take risks, seeking glory. He’s also big on the big numbers. My list also included the big numbers, but they were the ones that tend to pull at my heart strings more. Unrequited love, fawning over your children, thinking about your legacy.

This shouldn’t surprise me, but I’m amazed how the same musical can have different effects on people. My son really loved the intensity and power of the main character’s personality; I gravitated to his struggles, his failures, his feelings of inadequacy. Part of that is life experience. Certainly, I haven’t accomplished everything I wanted to do at 13 – nowadays, I’m not sure I want to, because I know exactly what it costs to achieve them. At the same time, “there’s a lot of things I haven’t done” and I worry if it’ll ever happen.

In the musical, I take comfort that A. Ham was a real person. He had great ideas, but he frequently did them in ways that made enemies, he made big mistakes, and he felt like he had failed even after everything he accomplished. I weep openly every time I hear “It’s Quiet Uptown,” because the loss of a child is something I fear, and I understand what that means to a parent.

Of course, history has a way of repeating itself. Like when my brother (four years older) watched Fiddler on the Roof every day for six months. He was trying to get the lead of Tevye in the high school production. I can still sing every %*(#*$ line from that musical. That was thirty years ago.

So what did you take away from Hamilton? Have you been avoiding it? Did you hate it? Let me know in the comments below!

World Building vs. Plot… Fight!

22 Jul

It took me twenty thousand words, but I finally figured out why I was having such trouble with my current work in progress – I was more concerned with the world I was building than the plot I was going to put in it. I guess I just figured that the plot would naturally feed itself, since I fell in love with my idea, but that quickly proved not to be the case.

This particular novel started off with a comment that Peter Gold, a fellow member of The Royal Manticoran Navy (a great fandom), told me. “The
sci-fi writers of the 50s and 60s knew the importance of the merchant
marine during WWII, and wrote sci-fi stories built around merchant
ships rather than the navy.” So this got me researching how merchant marine worked today, watching great videos from mariners on YouTube (TimBatSea, JeffHK, Chief MAKOI), and figuring out how to fit that into a sci-fi situation. Trying to avoid being Firefly, I reused one of my previous universes, shifted it ahead 40 years, and BOOM! I’ve got a great universe.

“Hey, Camp NaNoWriMo is coming up,” I tell myself, “let’s grind this out and write a story in this universe!” I came up with a comprehensive character sketch for the crew members on this merchant ship, so I knew who to have my main character interact with. My main character? Eh… he’s the POV character, so naturally not knowing anything (like the audience) is fine. But then, I never bothered to develop his backstory, or character traits, since I figured that would come out in the writing. (Partly right.)

Now what I should have realized as soon as I started is that all I had in my head for the plot was a couple scenes. Once those wear out, well… I can talk to all the characters I worked so hard to sketch out. Okay… then what? At some point, my main character has to DO SOMETHING. That’s where things got iffy. “Oh, crap! How do I keep my word count up?”

So I pulled a trick that Scott Lynch did in his book, The Lies of Locke Lamora: start in the middle of the action, flashback to the character building later. That worked… let me get back to who this character actually is. Still don’t have a plot, but hey, I’m getting more scenes in. I’m getting a glimpse of where I want to go. But that only lasts so long.

Now I’m at 35,000 words and I realize, “Oh, I have no idea what story I want to tell in this universe!” Now I’ve got 11 more days in the “contest,” I don’t want to stop when I’m so close, I don’t really want to keep writing it either. So I’m left with the realization that I’m going to finish this, a novel that is unpublishable, and it’ll take another month or so to rewrite this into something that I’ll be proud to show. And editing is not my strong suit – and I’m too cheap/broke to hire someone.

Oi.

However, this whole process has taught me the valuable lesson – figure out what story you want to tell first. Even if it’s not completely fleshed out, have a goal that you want your character to reach, and this will go to a far, far better place.

Have you ever had this problem? Most of the time, I’ve given up on the story, but have you just muscled through a story that you knew was going nowhere? Tell me in the comments section below!

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